Thank Poaching

The fight is on – and it’s not about poachers. Predator says the RSPB has a tough fight on its hands if it wants to close down shooting.

The modern gamekeeper has a lot to thank poachers for. Take this extract: “Poaching Giles lives on the borders of one of those great moors in Somersetshire. Giles, to be sure, has been a sad fellow in his time; and it is none of his fault, if his whole family do not end their career either at the gallows or at Botany Bay. He lives at that mud cottage with the broken windows, stuffed with dirty rags…”

It is from an 1836 book by rural campaigner Hannah More. The poacher has existed in the minds of the chattering classes much like that, either more or less noble or more or less criminal but always lovable, since long before the days of Robin Hood. At least he eats what he steals, is the thinking.

Now here is the writer Richard Jefferies from 1880: “The keeper’s cottage stands in a sheltered ‘coombe’ or narrow hollow of the woodlands, overshadowed by a mighty Spanish chestnut, bare now of leaves, but in summer a noble tree. The ash wood covers the slope at the rear…” Spot the difference. This character is on the side of righteousness, though he suffers from being a bit comfortable or ‘kept’. Less hungry than the poacher, he is less cunning. But he and the poacher live in a charmed partnership that has only been helped by the British sentiment. We want our countryside to look like this, just as we want our teapots dribblesome.

These are ideas so firmly planted in the minds of the British consciousness that it’s going to take dynamite to move them. But one organisation reckons it has that dynamite. It is, of course, that four-letter word: RSPB. Until it spikes its guns, the RSPB is the shooter’s, the keeper’s and even the poacher’s enemy. It is not pitching itself as a super-poacher in order to defeat British gamekeepers. It believes it is a super-gamekeeper, and it wants to replace you.

The RSPB’s autumn ‘Birdcrime’ report was only the latest battleground in its war on keepering. It claimed that 2009 was the second-worst year in the past decade for raptor persecution. And its big problem? “Land managed for the shooting of gamebirds”, particularly “the upland grouse shooting estates in northern England and Scotland.”

By the time the RSPB had put its press release into the newspapers, it didn’t matter that the police National Wildlife Crime Unit had recorded much lower crime figures for 2009. The shooting organisations were caught on the back foot and lost the round.

Beyond the bearded innocent few at the RSPB who are actually interested in birds, a lot of what the RSPB does is about maintaining its membership. It claims to have a million members, compared to BASC and the Countryside Alliance’s 100,000+. With membership, it is all about the noughts. There is no point the RSPB aiming for 2 million – it’s still the same number of noughts.

There is an old rule in journalism: the more the noughts, the less believable the figure. But the clever old RSPB knows nobody can be bothered to check its membership records to find out how many there really are. As long as it looks plausible that it has a million members, it can continue saying so.

It’s not just about membership. Whether you are BASC, RSPB, NGO or Countryside Alliance, you have two audiences. You have to perform in front of your members and, if you are a good organisation, do what they want. You also have to influence politicians and do what they want if you are to get laws changed to what you want.

Despite the huge amounts of cat-lovers’ cash that it can deploy in its battles, lamming into gamekeepers is a risky strategy for the RSPB. Years of frothy-mouthed press releases about ‘raptor persecutors’ making the upland keeper sound like a Spanish inquisitor have swayed nobody beyond their happy fuzzy view that gamekeepers are gruff but worthy coves who occasionally have to run after the village rascal shouting “hoy – you there – stop”. Even most RSPB members still see gamekeepers as the Keystone Cops of the Countryside.

The attack is now all about the politics. The RSPB is clear. Members of its executive want to close down shooting or, as they put it, “removing the right for shooting to take place over an estate if an employee is convicted [of bird crime]”.

‘Bird crime’ is brilliant phrasing. It’s a bit like thoughtcrime in George Orwell’s novel 1984, with the main character Winston Smith’s chilling words: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death”. Luckily for our side of the argument, bird crime also offers an image of magpies in black masks moving from raiding nests to hitting rural post offices.

The RSPB is even dallying with a role as an anti-poaching force. In a departure from its usual work with British birds, in Kazakhstan it is helping to fund a project to release a herd of 20 saiga antelope back into the wild. It admits that saving large mammals seems “a little odd” but it adds that, because the antelope keeps the grass down on the Kazakh steppes, it helps birds survive there too. Part of the project’s role is to police the saiga herds, to catch and prosecute poachers.

It is sensible for the RSPB to widen its role to become – as it calls itself – “nature’s voice” as well as a single-issue group determined to preserve birds. However, it risks diluting its membership message if it grows its brand into these areas. Ask any marketing guru: message dilution will never do.

Strangely, it behaves as an ally to some wildfowlers. There are cases where wildfowling clubs have been able to shoot on RSPB land, causing “raised eyebrows” when this was reported in the Daily Mail. However, if the RSPB ever gets keepers banned, fowlers will not be far behind.

So it is your duty to big up the old idea of the poacher. Not the Saiga poacher but the one-for-the-pot merchant – the character Tom Harker played by Gordon Jackson in the 1985 film The Shooting Party. Your strength as a keeper depends on you having some old fool to chase after, to catch occasionally but more often than not to let go back to his “mud cottage” while you enjoy the comfort of your “sheltered coombe”. And for goodness sake don’t shoot him like Edward Fox’s character Lord Gilbert Hartlip did to Tom Harker.

Plastic Poachers

What with a new Harry Potter film out for Christmas and JK Rowling’s insistence that Hagrid be called a gamekeeper rather than ‘park ranger’ or ‘wildlife carer’, the notion of the old-fashioned gamekeeper continues to get its outing. However, I was worried that the idea of the old poacher was getting left behind. Imagine my delight to find a press release from the German toy manufacturer Playmobil about its poacher range. Yes, really.

For those who don’t know, Playmobil is a bit like Lego you don’t have to build. It makes plastic ‘characters’ with horrifyingly characterless faces, who inhabit perfectly clean Playmobil hospitals or airports or other urbania. Yet there is an executive at Playmobil with either a sense of humour or a passion for ‘hunting’. As well as the banal über-bollocks it sells to children are Playmobil sets with a forest ranger/gamekeeper with a cottage and forest animals, trees, a high seat, a truck and a rifle. Now the keeper has poachers, albeit white African ones.

The wickedest Playmobil poacher is a white hunter with a black beard riding a jerry-built (literally) quad bike, flatbed trailer. In the shadow of Kilimanjaro (though it could be Fujiyama) he appears to have shot and boiled out the head of a Texas longhorn, which you would have thought would count as a conservation success. If you fancy one for Christmas, look for Playmobil set no. 4834.

Of course, I rang Playmobil’s press office in London, keen to know more about their unexpected affection for fieldsports. The woman I spoke to told me crisply that the forest ranger sets are available in the UK but Playmobil is not promoting them. RSPB supporter, I’m guessing.

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